Anyway, the highlight in this story, so far, is the RIAA demons.
I awoke from sleep, feeling disassociated with the world around me. It took a long and difficult moment for my eyes to focus on the ceiling, and consious effort to hold that focus. Voices were whispering someplace in the room, right near me. Carefully, I turned my head, feeling woozy from the movement. No one else was in the room.
The room was mine, which was comforting, considering I was having a hard time dredging up facts from my memory, or concentrating on anything at all. My mind felt like it had been split apart and put back together, but not quite in the right order. It felt almost like a combination of being hungover and coming down from an acid trip, with a little bit of that post-ecstacy emptiness.
I closed my eyes and relaxed. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Concentrate on nothing but breathing. One, two, one two. It didn't take long to slip into a light trance; I had been practicing meditation since I could walk. Such were the perils of being raised by hippies who never quite let it go. Taking a few moments and shifting into that light, gauzy state of meditation helped settle my body. Feeling started to flood in from my extremeties, starting with the light tingle of slightly misused nerve endings, which quickly faded. I kept my eyes open, and gradually, they managed to focus on what I termed the "Drunk Chart" on my ceiling. It was one of those eye charts that doctors used, but in the low ceilings of my basement apartment, it was close enough that I could accurately guage my drunkeness based on which line I could read.
Based on the chart, I was mostly sober, but coming down hard.
My stomach reminded me of this.
Gingerly, I pulled myself to a sitting position. The far wall of the bedroom was taken up by a desk and a stack of small computers, and six flat panel monitors. Each piece of equipment was in a varying state of disassembly, but all were up and running, cases off. This was why I didn't have pets. Slowly, I turned in the bed, and hung my legs over the edge, where they found the five inch thick strata of dirty laundry that coated the floor of my bedroom. As I moved, my hand found a piece of paper on the bed. When I picked it up, my eyes lost focus again, but a force of will was enough to bring things swimming back to relative clarity.
"Hope you liked it. -T"
"I hope I did too T. But I'm afraid my dear, it wasn't terribly memorable." I sighed, and stood. Surprisingly, this didn't cause any ill effects. I waded through the piles of stuff over to the desk, and tapped the keyboard, which disabled all of the screen savers; the whole thing was set up as a Beowulf cluster, using a chain of videocards in different boxes to provide this massively multihead display- my mouse could move seamlessly between all six monitors, giving me more screen real-estate than god itself, and in general, more computer than most people could reasonably use. Then again, I wasn't most people.
There were about a dozen programs running visibly, demanding my attention, and all of them said the same thing. "Internet Connection Lost." This merited a long groan, and an examination of the idiot lights on the cable modem. Sure enough, the "Cable" light was flashing once a second, code for a disconnect. Pushing back the early morning fog, or at least, the freshly awoken fog (my computer politely informed me that it was two in the afternoon), I did some mental arithmetic, and verified that I hadn't failed to make any payments.
I flopped into the chair set at my desk, an ancient hospital wheelchair that I had stolen off of the curb a few months ago. I didn't know why it was being thrown out, I didn't care. A little work with a sponge set it right, and it was one of the most comfortable chairs I had evern owned. Plus, I didn't need to get out of it to go into the kitchen and grab a beer.
I lit a cigarette, and leaned over to reach the answering machine. There was only one message.
"Mr. Dresden, I'm Jane, calling from High Speed Technologies, a wholly owned subsidiary of National Communications. I regret to inform you that as of 7AM this morning, your service has been terminated due to a violation of your terms of service. At 4AM, your bandwith usage spiked to such a degree that it disrupted network traffic through our entire service region. Please contact us at our Account Appeals department, 1-800-555-2895, so that we can discuss how to get your account back into good standing. Thank you for your time, Mr. Dresden, we look foward to hearing from you."
"Well, fuck you very much Jane," I said. I have this habit of speaking aloud, even when alone. Part of me is always putting on a show, as if someone was watching. It makes writing my exploits more interesting at least, and I think it comes from too much television in my youth. Of course, when all you say is trite cliches, it just doesn't work out terribly well. As I write this, I'll attempt to invent more snappy dialog. Brush this one off as having an overly tired brain.
I called them back, argued, harangued, and generally was a bitch until they agreed to turn my service back on. I blamed it on a trojan that had slipped past my firewall and attempted to DDoS Microsoft's website. A lie, since my computers were inoculated against pretty much any virus, and automatically updated those definitions whenever a new one was discovered, moreover, my firewall was smart enough to catch weird traffic like that, and at the very least, log it. While I verbally duked it out with various levels of incompetant support, I checked those obvious things. I fed them lines, and let _them_ decide I had caught some cheesy virus that only morons were susceptible to, the kinda that require you to click on the e-mail attachment. They gave me steps for fixing it, which I ignored. All in all, they thought they had helped some luser through something beyond their ken, and I was loathe to disabuse them of that notion. Once they were convinced I had cleaned out the virus I didn't have, they turned my service back on, and by the time I hung up the phone, I was back online.
And I was confused. There was no sign of large network traffic through my firewall or router. Perhaps this mysterious "T" person had plugged a laptop right into the cable modem? Possible perhaps, though I'd have to be pretty wasted to allow that sort of behavior on my network.
My head started to throb.
Taking that as a sign, I made sure everything dependant on an Internet connection was running, and rolled my wheelchair back. Whatever drug I took last night was having another go at my brain. It felt like my head was sliding apart, or perhaps together, clacking into place like that puzzle cube from _Hellraiser_. I was a serious bithead, but not so addicted to monitor light that I was a troll.
I dug a shirt from the bottom of the accretion on my floor- that which was closer to the bottom had been worn the longest ago, and hence, had the longest time to air out and forget whatever smells it acquired. A quick sniff test confirmed that it was relatively stench free. Since I went a week without changing pants most of the time, I simply grabbed the moderately clean pair that had been tossed over the back of my wheelchair, pushed my hair back, and headed for the door.
In retrospect, stepping out onto Lark Street at midday, in the state that I was in at the time, was not the best idea. To anyone between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, Lark Street was the beating heart of the city of Albany. On most weekends, especially during the summer, it's a swarming mass of people blocking traffic and moving between botiques, headshops, restuarants, tattoo parlors and coffee shops. About one weekend a month during the summer and fall, Lark street is further overrun by some street festival or another, ranging from Gay Pride festivals, to Community Gatherings, and all sorts of other government sponsored liberal tinged caraousing.
This was one of those weekends. Someplace on the street I could hear a band murdering a Jimi Hendrix song, but I couldn't see them because of the crowd. Judging from the direction of the noise, they were a few blocks down, probably infront of the church that held the punk rock festivals- yeah, I don't understand it either.
Leaning against the iron railing that seperated the stairs to my basement from the sidewalk, was a tall, lanky teen. He had long black hair, and was wearing a black tank top, which showed off the tattoo he was sporting on his arm, a stylized transitor symbol. Beneath it was a collection of ones and zeros- I did a quick mental conversion, and confirmed that it was the first three prime numbers.
"Do I know you?" See, I can be witty, when my head is pounding and my vision is swimming, and a wall of noise is slamming into my inner ear. I could smell the powerful odor of too many humans in close proximity.
"Not yet." He still hadn't turned to look at me. "Call me David. I'm a friend of Therese." He lit a cigarette- also black. At this point, I was noticing a theme.
"Therese..." I racked my brain. "Was she with me last night? This is embarassing as hell, but it's kinda a blur."
He smirked and stood. Now he turned, his grey eyes stabbing my own. "It's okay, none of us really expected you to remember it."
I chuckled sheepishly. "Yeah, from what I can tell this morning, I was pretty fucked up."
He laughed, in a dirty joke sort of way. "Listen, I know you're a geek, and I know you're hard up for work." A bit of legerdermain materialized a business card in his hand, which he offered me. The business name was "T, Inc". It had a website and an email address, but no other contact information. The logo was the same stylized transistor he wore on his arm. "Email me, and I'll shoot you some codeblocks." He took a long pull on his cigarette- a clove by the smell.
"You're going to contract code out to a stranger, just like that?" I pocketted the business card; I was incredulous, but the ramen diet was getting a bit old. If he was actually offering work, legal, grey-hat, or just plain criminal, I wasn't really in a position to worry about it.
"You're no stranger." His eyes did the stabbing thing again. "You just don't remember last night clearly enough."
Whatever drugs were in my system came roaring back. My vision went black, and white lines of pulsing energy crossed my sight. The sound of digital noise filled my ears, and my brain felt like it was torn into its constituent bits, written out to disk, and then burned to CD. When it cleared, I was leaning heavily on the railing where David had been sitting, spots still in my eyes. He was gone, merged off someplace into the crowd. The band had stopped playing.
I swore off drugs that morning. Still bleary, I stumbled down the street to the local indie-coffee bar. It was apparently a Gay-Pride festival this weekend, if the number of rainbows and triangles on T-shirts and jewlery was any indication. Unfortunately, some bastard invited the Indigo Girls to play, and they went on right as I was walking past the stage. I'm no musician, and not really even a music fan. But there are some things I absolutely loathe, and the Indigo Girls are one of them.
Another thing I loathe? The Indigo Girls' _fanbase_. Considering that I've had the dalliance with a gentleman on occasion, nothing serious mind you, but not exactly something that would get me on the cover of "Homophobes Weekly", it really speaks volumes that I uttered things like, "Get the fuck out of my way you fucking Shamu of a dyke."
Great thing about these liberal types though- they hate violent conflict. They obligingly moved, and then muttered nasty things about me behind my back.
At any rate, the Politcal Correctness Police did not stop me, and I made it the five blocks to the coffee shop. I almost turned back when I saw that the crowd, and the line trying to get in the door were merged into one entity, but the need for caffeine overpowered any agroraphobia, and I stuck it out. While standing there, waiting in that line, I saw a guy inside, through the window.
I was looking down at him, since the coffee shop, like my own apartment, was in the basement. When I first focussed on him, I saw him in a smart suit, balding a little, looking like a politican from the Capitol a few blocks away- despite the fact that this was a weekend. But my brain did the fragment thing, a sheet of digital noise occulded my hearing, and while I was staring at him, I saw a... thing. His clothes vanished, but that was okay, because so did his skin. There was just this humanoid form, made out of wires and light. There was a suggestion of wings, strung together out of bits of programming code, the letters glowing greenly like something out of _The Matrix_.
I wondered, for a moment, if I had watched _The Matrix_ while tripping last night, which would at least explain this flashback.
He turned and saw me.
The light smirked.
And opened its mouth.
Out of which, a string of bits flew into the air.
I don't know how I knew it was a string of bits. It was just some tendrils of more of that glowing light stuff. But it was a string of bits, and it flew out into space, and vanished.
Reality faded back to normal when my cellphone beeped. My nerves were jumpy, like after a twenty-four hour coding marathon hyped up on caffeine and power drinks and the ever sugary Mountain Dew. Hell, C++ code was swimming before my eyes. I was woozy and shaky, and not even noticing that the line had moved, and I hadn't, thereby sacrificing my place to the swirling mass of Indigo Girls fans. I wanted to kill.
The guy was still looking at me and smirking when my cellphone beeped again. There was a hint of jowls at his jawline.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket, and glanced at it. I had a new text message.
"I see you. This is your one and only warning. Don't let it happen again." There was no "Sender's Number" attached to it.
I looked at the guy in the coffee shop. He blew me a kiss.
I took a step back, merged into the crowd, and went away, caffeine forgotten.
I had bad trips before. That was nothing new, no news there. I had even had crazy flashbacks that lasted for days, or weeks, or even would just come back months later. One of the risks you take while self-medicating.
But that thing was like nothing I had ever seen. Even though it _had_ to be the drugs, the message was there, and it was real. It was in my phone's memory. As I dodged into side streets, trying to escape the crowd, I checked it, again and again, just to make sure it was real. Fine, someone was hacking the phone system, phreaking with text messages. Shit like that happens, right?
Then what about the string of bits that flew from his mouth? It flew into space, and I bet, if you checked the direction they went, they headed right for the nearest cell-phone tower.
Nonsense, I told myself. That was the drugs. Your brain is fucked up, and you're making connections that aren't there. The drugs.
My blind run away from the crowds landed me a few blocks up the hill, standing in Washington Park. All of the property that bordered on Washington Park was the ritziest stuff you could find in Albany. Fancy 19th century complexes with big apartments and fancy stonework. The park itself was verdant, and perfectly kept. This was the sort of park that didn't see any litter, and the roads that crossed through it were laid out in a manner more decorative than condusive to motor transit.
In short, it is one of the single nicest places in Albany.
And I was in it, sitting under a tree, while my brain spasmed.
Six hours later, I had shaken it off. Things were starting to make sense again, and I pushed the stranger in the coffee shop out of my mind. Lark Street had quietted down, the festival was over, and the street was all but empty, save for the roadies packing up the stage, and a handful of hippies loitering infront of the headshop.
In another four hours, the place would be hopping again, as everyone came out to hit the bars and clubs.
Still, I had a reprieve.
I walked back to my apartment, and saw a young girl leaning against my railing. Young was perhaps the wrong word, she was mid-twenties, but looked mid-teens. I can always get a sense when people look younger than they are, something about their hair and the way they dress. She grinned when she saw me approaching. She was doing the punk-rock school-girl thing, and pulling it off admirably well, though the abstract tattoo on her face, a collection of gentle curves in multiple colors following her jawline, put lie to her being young enough to be a school girl.
"My railing seems so damn popular today."
"At least the railing doesn't pass out before the interesting stuff happens." She put extra emphasis on the word "interesting".
I cringed. This must be Therese. And apparently, I hadn't been a good boy last night. I started to apologize, but she cut me off.
"You haven't emailed David yet." She just dropped the statement, matter of fact, into my lap.
"Sorry, I was still coming down off of... whatever... we had last night, and I got the weirdest text message, which set off a whole cascade of things. I've been coming down all day."
"Weird? Weird how?"
I showed her.
She handed the phone back to me, her already pale complexion having gone a few notches paler. She pressed me for more details, so I told her about my hallucination.
When I was done, her cheeks were flushed, her tattoo looked livid, and she was whipping out a cellphone. She was a pro- without looking at it, she flipped it open, hit a keypad sequence, and by the time she had it up to her ear, it had connected with whoever she was calling. "David," she said, "Our little n00b had a run in with a RIAA probe. We need to roundup, reward, and keep our city clean." Pause, while she listened. "Great, I'll be at the corner of Lancaster and Lark. Yeah, I'll bring the n00b and we can pop his cherry again."
I was officially confused.
I didn't have to say anything, because she was no dummy, and had me in hand.
"Alright, Dresden," she addressed me, and yes, I go by my last name. "I've got fifteen minutes to get you up to par so you don't go and get your ass ground into a greasy smear on the sidewalk before tomorrow. You weren't hallucinating. What you don't remember from last night has nothing to do with drugs."
At this point, if this were a work of fiction, something would prevent this rather clumsy exposition. However, this is real life, and, when it comes to a matter of my continued life or death, people tend to be rather forthcoming with information.
We started walking towards Lancaster street, one of the swankier cross streets to Lark. It was notable because nearly every house on the block had an insecure wi-fi router. I knew some war-drivers, people who go around looking for insecure networks to get free net access, who just parked at one end of Lancaster and broke out thier laptops.
"Last night, I inducted you into our little cabal, which we simply call 'T'. We are occultist, mages, sorcerors, witches, whatever-label-fits. I told you this last night, but we accidentially wiped that information during the induction."
I opened my mouth, and she slapped a hand over it. "Hold your questions until the ride is over Dresden. I showed you a few things last night, basic rituals. Started getting your awareness up. The last thing I showed you was what the pseudo-scientists like to call an OBE- out of body experience. Most modern-day newagers like to talk about Astral projection, which has a time and a place, but isn't nearly as exciting as Digital Projection. I took you out of your body, and brought you into the Internet."
I didn't say anything, but I did something worse. I laughed.
Her face was grave. She stopped walking, and stood infront of me, hands on my shoulders. "Dresden, I know how weird this sounds." She the kneed me in the groin. I was completely unprepared for this tactic, so I didn't so much as get part of my thigh in the way to block the shot. She had clear, uninhibited access to my tender portions, and had her way with them. Which resulted in me landing on the pavement, clutching myself.
"But really Dresden, I don't have time for bullshit." She pulled me back up by my hair, tossing me forward a few steps. "What you were shaking off all day was the after-effects from having no experience with these things and running digital. When you were at the coffee shop, you slipped between the Physical and the Astral- which is really the same thing as the Digital anyway."
She kept walking and I hobbled along behind her, too entranced by this... insanity, to stop. Besides, I was afraid of what she would do to me if I turned around and left. "And that guy was really just a physical, real-world avatar for a demon which is wholly owned and operated by none other than the Recording Industry Association of America."
I risked my future sex life, and said, "You really expect me to buy all of that? Do you know how crazy that sounds? I mean, for chrissakes, you have RIAA consorting with demons?"
She shrugged. "It goes a little beyond that, I'm trying to keep it simple for you right now."